What is the origin of the Tarot?
Egypt, China, North Africa and India have all claimed to be the birthplace of the Tarot.
The word Tarot is said to be derived from two Egyptian words, Tar, meaning ‘road,’ and Ro, meaning ‘royal.’
Thus the Tarot can be translated as The Royal Road.
One popular legend claims that when the Alexandria Serapeum in Egypt, housing the Great Library dedicated to the Muses, the nine goddesses of the arts, was burnt down, tribesmen managed to rescue some of the most precious papyrus scrolls and ancient texts from the burning library.
They fled to the City of Fez in Morocco, which, as the only North-African state to evade Ottoman occupation, became the focal point for mystics, philosophers and wise men. There they devised a special pictorial language, portraying the esoteric teachings and wisdom of the ancients lost in the fires and sacking of Alexandria.
This Egyptian tribe, (known then as ‘Gypsies’,) later became wanderers upon the face of the earth, nomads, remaining a people apart with an ancient language and a birth right of magic and mystery.
The images and symbology they created are claimed to have been the foundation and essence of the Tarot, which they brought to India and from there, on their travels, to Europe.
The Tarot is undoubtedly a vital element in Rosicrucian symbology, possibly the very book of universal knowledge which the order claimed to possess. The Rota Mundi is a term frequently occurring in the early manifestoes of the Fraternity of the Rose Cross – the word Rota an anagram of Taro, the ancient name of these mysterious cards.
However there are also correspondences in the Tarot with the Hebrew Kabbalah, Numerology, Gnosticism, Celtic religion and doubtless other traditions and cultures.
Whatever its origin, the universal significance of the Tarot’s symbology was said by alchemists and mystics to spring from the ‘Soul of the World’ (anima mundi.) Ancients called this concept ‘The Sympathy of all things’. Carl Gustav Jung later named this concept the ‘Collective Unconscious’.
Others claim the word Tarot means ‘above and below together’ – or what we call today the Macrocosm and the Microcosm, everything – because in it are summed up every agency contributing to the structure of creation.
These descriptions are not dissimilar from the idea of the Akashic Records. This is the compendium, believed by theosophists to be encoded in a non-physical plane of existence known as the ‘Etheric Plane’ or ‘Field’, which holds the energetic imprint of every event, human deed, thought, word and emotion ever to have occurred in the past, present or future of this planet.
It is therefore the story of us all. Named by Joseph Campbell ‘The Hero’s Journey’ it is a representation of our path through life. The Tarot therefore shows us where we are at any time on our life’s journey.
However I must add, notwithstanding all the above claims, when I met my Tarot teacher some 40 years ago, he claimed that the origin of the Tarot is somehow not recorded, or cannot be ‘seen’ in the Akashic Records in the way other things are recorded. If he was right, this makes the Tarot’s origin, like the Cards themselves, an even more enduring, intriguing mystery.
The next piece will discuss the Arcana’s or two divisions of today’s Tarot.